College Ball poised to win fans longer MLB lockdown drags on – NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth
Kush Patel showed up at Minute Maid Park wearing the No. 43 jersey of Houston Astros ace Lance McCullers Jr. and aspiring baseball player.
This time, instead of watching his favorite team, Patel was there to watch the Tennessee Volunteers take on the Texas Longhorns in a college baseball heavyweight battle.
“I’m a die-hard Astros fan, so it’s just good to be back in this building and watching some baseball,” Patel said. “I’m more of an MLB guy, but I started watching college baseball last year for the College World Series. In middle school, it seems players are allowed to have more passion, which definitely makes the game a bit more interesting and fun to watch.
The college game could prove to be an attractive alternative for Patel and other fans if Major League Baseball’s lockdown extends into the spring.
College baseball has seen unprecedented growth over the past decade, with schools spending hundreds of millions of dollars building new stadiums and facilities and increasing coaching salaries. The level of play is at an all-time high and will get even better, people in the game say, as fewer rounds in the MLB draft mean more elite players will go to school, or stay at school, rather than heading for benefits.
These factors, along with the lockout, give the college an opportunity to expand its fan base.
“For someone who doesn’t know much about the college game, once they’ve seen it, they might not want to go back and watch the pro game as much as the college game,” said Craig Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association. “The passion for the college game and the love for the game itself, every game feels like ‘the game.’ cannot be matched.
One of the premier events in the college game, the Shriners Children’s College Classic, took place over the weekend at Minute Maid Park. Houston sits between the campuses of Texas and LSU, and a game between those teams on Saturday drew 24,787. Crowds of more than 16,000 showed up for other matchups.
Oklahoma coach Skip Johnson said the lively atmosphere sets college ball apart from MLB.
“You look at Major League Baseball and its playoffs — all of our kids aspire to be major leaguers,” Johnson said. “But there’s something different about March Madness and super regionals and (CWS at) Omaha, and you hear, ‘Boomer Sooner!’ Or the regional we played at Florida State and they were like, ‘K-Time, K-Time, K-Time!’
“That’s the spirit of the game, and it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, and it makes you want to go out there and compete and go after that. It’s almost like a game of football on a baseball field sometimes. So I think that’s what’s been fun about it.
Schools, especially in Power 5 conferences, are showing more commitment to their baseball programs as the profile of the sport rises nationally.
The Sports Business Journal reported that total spending on college baseball and softball stadiums topped $256 million in 2020, up from $100 million in 2019.
New stadiums opened in Florida ($65 million), Oklahoma State ($60 million) and Connecticut ($40 million), among others, and North Carolina State recently announced a $15 million baseball facility upgrade to begin after this season. Outside of Power 5, an anonymous donor fully funded a $60 million baseball facilities project in Binghamton, New York.
According to a study conducted by AthleticDirectorU.com and USA Today, the average salary for Power 5 head coaches in 2020 was $613,807. The Southeastern Conference had the highest average at just under $900,000.
There were 10 coaches in the country known to earn at least $1 million a year in 2020, according to the USA Today salary database. There are now at least 11, with Tennessee’s Tony Vitello getting a $1.5 million a year raise after leading the Volunteers to the 2021 College World Series.
Last year’s College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska drew a record 361,711, and more than 24,000 showed up for each of the three finals games.
College baseball has become a big part of TV and streaming inventory this spring. ESPN first aired College World Series games in the 1980s and increased its coverage of NCAA regionals and super regionals.
This year, more than 200 regular season games will be televised on ESPN channels and another 2,200 on digital platforms. Five years ago, ESPN channels were televising 135 games and the ACC network and ESPN+ digital platform had yet to launch.
Non-ESPN properties such as the Big Ten Network and the Pac-12 Network also offer games.
Keilitz said college baseball is at the start of its ascent. He said college baseball has everything to gain from the recent contraction of the minor league system and the drop in draft rounds from 40 to 20.
In the past, a high school player selected in the first 10 rounds would almost certainly turn pro. Now this player is seriously considering college and the possibility of increasing his value. He has access to strength, conditioning, and nutrition programs that Keilitz says are generally far superior to those at lower pro ball levels.
“Playing minor league and rookie ball or being in the SEC, ACC or Pac-12, the facilities just don’t come close,” Keilitz said.
Keilitz said the evolution of the professional game — many strikeouts while waiting for the two-run homer — might discourage baseball purists. The college style suits them well.
“It could be a bit more of the baseball most of us know and love – stealing bases, hitting and running, more aggressive on base paths, shorting with two strikes to try and put the ball in play , hit behind the runner,” Keilitz said. “It may not be better, but it’s different from the professional game.”
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